Other than the types of reunion acts that are willing to play mid-sized Philharmonics and minor-league hockey stadiums (Guns N’ Roses was a big deal), the live acts that play South Florida are few and far between. So perhaps I was overexcited for the annual Langerado festival which, to put it charitably, is the poor-man’s Bonnaroo. Taking place in the enormous Markham Park (700 acres, including a shooting range and model airplane field), the fest had three stages: two large open-aired (Sunset and Everglades) and one covered area setting a smaller, club-like atmosphere (the Swamp Tent). Placed a couple hundred yards from one another, generally one or two bands would play at a time; you could always hear something, but wandering and sampling was impossible, and if neither Matisyahu or O.A.R. are your cup of tea, you might be shit out of luck for an hour.
Langerado is a two-day festival stretched out over three days, and though the lineup was stacked in the hippies’ smelly favor, there were some leftfield choices (the Hold Steady, Blackalicious, Girl Talk) alongside the jam-fest regulars (Trey Anastasio, Widespread-fucking-Panic). The folks behind the scenes at Langerado clearly have their eyes on the nationally recognized prize: every piece of promotional material hyped Sunrise, Florida’s close proximity to Fort Lauderdale’s international airport, and last year’s local band tent was completely nixed for three stages of signed, national groups.
The War on Drugs declared a cease-fire within the fest’s gates, at least as far as pot was concerned, so Friday’s acts were of the stoner variety. Early spots like the sanitized, white-boy reggae of Dubconscious and Lotus, a full-band that mimics DJ-based house and trance music, were well-received by the increasingly inebriated crowd. The first big surprise was Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, a traditional soul group from James Brown’s—and my—hometown of Augusta, Georgia. The Kings sound like a better-than-the-norm wedding band on their own, but with Jones as frontwoman (she makes a grand entrance after two songs or so), they were the next best thing to the JBs. A big-boned black woman in a sparkly dress with a crystal-shattering shriek, Jones has no qualms about declaring herself “the female James Brown” or the next Tina Turner. Their set was fun and fabulous, and sort of hilarious.
The hipster set arrived around suppertime, kicked off at five o’clock by The Hold Steady. The band works because, at heart, they’re like a bunch of little kids dressing up and playing rock star—except they are exceptionally good at playing rock star. Frontman Craig Finn pantomimes his lyrics and stumbles into his microphone while other band members swing Les Pauls around their necks and boast some truly heroic sideburns. Starting somewhat predictably with Boys And Girls In America’s opener “Stuck Between Stations” and closing even more predictably with the record’s final song, “Southtown Girls,” the band humored a pretty bratty crowd whose bizarre heckles suggested that rock n’ roll really is the asshole’s medium.
Since breaking up Pavement, Stephen Malkmus and his backing band The Jicks have been getting more and more improv-oriented. Problem is, Malkmus’s tube-amp crunch and stumbling arpeggios didn’t appeal to the fans of flashier riffers like Bela Fleck or Anastasio, and indie-rockers would probably rather hear “Summer Babe.” Quirky, but undeniably indulgent, the jamming would render The Jicks excruciating if it weren’t for Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss on drums. Weiss’s inventive and commanding fills kept up the band’s pace and my interest; she could make any band sound awesome.
Except for Bela Fleck. I caught about five minutes of his set while I was waiting in line for a Port-a-John. Why do people like this guy? It’s total elevator music. I blew off Anastasio and much of Saturday’s sets because I’ve been fighting a cold and I wanted to check out the beach-clearly, I’m not apart of Langerado’s demographic. But what I did see on Saturday was dope. Blackalicious, Langerado’s only hip-hop act if you don’t count beat-boxers Matisyahu and Kid Beyond (I don’t), were impressive. MC Gift Of Gab’s delivery increases in speed during bursts of breathless sequences, calling attention to how difficult rapping can be, a trick that brought big cheers from a crowd so devoted to technical prowess. The group’s backing vocalists and wah-wahed keyboards and turntables established an old-school ’70s funk vibe; no doubt groovy, but an inadvertent reminder that edgier hip-hop acts (i.e. anyone that might say “nigga”) are unlikely to make it to Langerado. It’s a diverse lineup, but a safe one.
My Morning Jacket, set on the Everglade’s stage, blew me away. In the live setting, the band’s dreamy hybrid of Galaxie 500 and Skynyrd gets a boost of AC/DC as well; it’s one band that probably merits a double-disc live album. With their very long hair, smoke machines, Flying V’s, and overworked groupies, the band enjoys acting like they’re the biggest band in the world, even if they’re not even the biggest band at this festival.
On Sunday, the place to be was the Swamp Tent, particularly to catch the extraordinary redemption of Cat Power. Chan Marshall, she of the legendarily bad concerts, has killed the onstage breakdowns, stops and starts, and ineptness, and emerged as what her nom-de-plume has always suggested: she’s a total sex kitten. Gorgeous in an Edie Sedgwick or Nico kind of way, Marshall struts like Jagger and moans with a raspy coo that puts Marilyn Monroe’s “Happy Birthday” to shame. Her backing group, the Dirty Delta Blues Band, lends a trippy Brit-blues vibe a la Them or the Yardbirds, which amps up her slower originals (“Where Is My Love”) and adds some flavor to her many covers. The only low point was a fish-in-a-barrel take on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”
The last three hours in the Swamp Tent called attention to all that Langerado could be: Explosions in the Sky were followed by Girl Talk followed by the New Pornographers, with nary a beer break between each set. The general mellow atmosphere is conducive to Frisbee and cruising the vendor tents for hacky sacks and homemade Phish T-shirts, but Sunday evening proved that the fest has some cajones underneath all that tie-dye.
Explosions in the Sky sounded great, meaning they sounded just like their records. They’re a good rock band, but just ’cause they’re instrumental doesn’t mean they’re all that complex: their songs have two parts—the loud part and the soft part. Again, I’m a part of a very grouchy minority here, but they put on a stultifyingly boring live show. Bobbing their heads back and forth and closing their eyes to address the firmament—or the ceiling of the Swamp Tent—they look self-impressed and lame while you wait for each song to build toward its predictable, but always exhilarating, loud part. The crowd loved the jet engine effect, though I wonder what they’d make of a Wolf Eyes show.
Girl Talk, a.k.a. Greg Gillis, shouted “I’m gonna do this laptop shit for 40 minutes,” and did just that, blasting his elaborate, clever mashups to a crowd all too eager to dance like they were in a Girls Gone Wild video after a weekend of swaying around barefooted. Gillis’s music is the most explicit indication that there is no longer a line between “indie” and “commercial” music; clips of Neutral Milk Hotel, INXS, Fleetwood Mac, and Clipse all received equally excited cheers. But what are we cheering for, exactly? Gillis and his impressive collage skills? The original artists? Or ourselves for recognizing these examples of cultural commerce that we’ve already consumed and re-consumed?
Pondering such matters filled the 10 minutes or so before The New Pornographers tore up the stage, opening with “Sing Me Spanish Techno.” Like a number of bands at Langerado, the New Pornos mined their cute factor: AC Newman’s adorable niece Kathryn Calder stands in for Neko Case, and the group’s in-between-song banter was largely giggling about the phallic qualities of the audience’s glow sticks. But with two pretty good and one stellar album under its belt, the band’s the set was filler-free and full of neat rock tricks—drummer Kurt Dahle tossing sticks between fills, bassist John Collins guzzling John Jameson from the bottle.
After closing with an explosive version of “Use It,” I turned around and saw the Swamp Tent was barely one third full. Did the best set of the festival really draw the smallest crowd? A disappointment for the band perhaps, but I confess, a snobby delight for myself. There may not be all that much in common between the indie rock and jam-band scenes after all, because while Widespread Panic glazed through two-and-a-half hours of glorified easy-listening over at the Everglades Stage, all that I prize about live rock n’ roll—energy, theatrics, precision, sex-appeal—was on display in the New Pornos furious hour-long set. Those who want a 10-minute plus rendition of anything need not apply.